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Al Martino was one of the great Italian-American pop crooners, boasting a string of hit singles and LPs that stretched from the early '50s all the way into the mid-'70s. However, he is perhaps even better known for his role in The Godfather as singer Johnny Fontane, a character supposedly based on Frank Sinatra but with eerie similarities to Martino's own career. Martino's 1952 debut smash, "Here in My Heart," made him the first American artist to top the charts in Great Britain, but his career was interrupted by gangster interference, which kept him out of the U.S. for much of the '50s. He later returned and rejuvenated his career, scoring his signature hit with 1965's classic "Spanish Eyes" and reaching a whole new audience via The Godfather in 1972.
Martino was born Alfred Cini in Philadelphia on October 7, 1927. His Italian immigrant parents ran a masonry business, and he worked alongside his brothers as a bricklayer while growing up. However, he was more interested in music, and was inspired by Al Jolson and Perry Como to try his own hand at singing. When his boyhood friend Alfredo Cocozza changed his name to Mario Lanza and became an international opera star, the possibility of a career in music suddenly seemed plausible. Adopting the stage name Al Martino (after his maternal grandfather's last name), he performed in local nightclubs for a time, and moved to New York City in 1948 with Lanza's encouragement. He went on to win first place on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show, thanks to a rendition of Perry Como's "If." That exposure helped him land a record deal with the Philadelphia-based independent label BBS.
In 1952, Martino recorded a ballad called "Here in My Heart" as his debut single. When he heard that Lanza was set to cut his own version, Martino called him and begged him not to, knowing that Lanza's record would immediately eclipse his own. Lanza relented, and "Here in My Heart" became a breakthrough smash for Martino, selling over a million copies and topping the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. Its success earned Martino a major-label deal with Capitol, and he released three more singles -- "Take My Heart," "Rachel," and "When You're Mine" -- through 1953, all of which hit the Top 40.
Unfortunately, a few of Martino's new fans wanted in on the action; according to legend, Martino's contract was forcibly taken over by a new, Mafia-connected management team, which then ordered Martino to pay a 75,000 dollar fee upfront, as a safeguard for their investment. Martino made a down payment to ensure his family's safety, then fled to England, where his popularity allowed him to perform successfully for a time; he even headlined the London Palladium. He continued to record in Britain with moderate success, but his work received no exposure back in the U.S. In 1958, thanks to the intervention of a family friend with the local Philadelphia boss, Martino was allowed to return home and resume his recording career.
By this time, Martino's initial momentum had long since cooled, and he faced an uphill battle re-establishing himself, especially since he hadn't been forced to contend with rock & roll the first time around. He recorded for 20th Century Fox during the late '50s, but none of his ten-plus singles reached the Top 40, and the label wound up dropping him. Undaunted, Martino financed the recording of a new album, The Exciting Voice of Al Martino, all on his own. It wound up landing him a new deal with Capitol, which issued the LP in 1962; its updated version of "Here in My Heart" was also released as a single, and barely scraped the charts. Martino quickly followed it with a mostly Italian-language LP, The Italian Voice of Al Martino, and made several high-profile television appearances to re-establish his visibility.
Thanks in part to those TV performances, Martino was able to score a major comeback smash with 1963's "I Love You Because," which heralded a newly understated vocal style and had previously been a country hit for honky tonk singer/songwriter Leon Payne. Arranged by Belford Hendricks, Martino's pop version went to number three on the pop charts, and all the way to the top of the easy listening charts. The accompanying album of the same name went Top Ten, and Martino remained a regular visitor to the charts for over a decade afterward, at first concentrating on country-tinged pop material with musical director Peter DeAngelis. 1963 brought more hits in "Painted, Tainted Rose" (Top 20 pop, Top Five easy listening) and "Living a Lie," and the accompanying Painted, Tainted Rose album became his second Top Ten. He charted four more times in 1964 with "Always Together," "I Love You More and More Every Day" (pop Top Ten), "Tears and Roses" (pop Top 20), and "We Could"; all were Top Ten easy listening hits.
In 1966, Martino recorded what would become his signature song, "Spanish Eyes," an adaptation of an instrumental piece by German conductor/composer Bert Kaempfert originally titled "Moon Over Naples." Although "Spanish Eyes" only made number 15 on the pop charts, it spent a month at number one easy listening, found tremendous success all across Europe, and was covered by countless other traditional pop artists over the years. The album of the same name went gold and became Martino's third (and final) Top Ten LP. He scored two more big easy listening hits that year with "Think I'll Go Home and Cry Myself to Sleep" and "Wiederseh'n," and in 1967 topped those charts twice with the folk-styled "Mary in the Morning" and the Bob Crewe-penned "More Than the Eye Can See."
Martino had a few more easy listening hits through the end of the '60s, including a vocal version of Paul Mauriat's instrumental "Love Is Blue" (1968) and a cover of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" (1970). However, his career momentum was slowing down, and his albums failed to attain their usual Top 100 chart placements. Fortunately, his longtime friend Phyllis McGuire (of the McGuire Sisters) was familiar with Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather. When Paramount decided to make a film version, McGuire brought the character of Johnny Fontane -- a fading pop idol who needs mob intervention to land the film role that would resurrect his career -- to Martino's attention. Although rumor had it that Fontane was based on Frank Sinatra, and his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity, the role resonated deeply with Martino, and he wound up winning the part. The Godfather, of course, was a huge critical and commercial success, and Martino's appearance -- not to mention his recording of the film's love theme, "Speak Softly Love" -- refreshed his reputation and even made him something of a cult icon.
Despite radically shifting tastes in pop music, Martino was able to parlay his Godfather role into a few more years of recording success. He returned to the pop Top 20 for the first time since "Spanish Eyes" with 1975's "To the Door of the Sun (Alle Porte del Sole)," an English translation of a popular Italian song. He also scored a highly unlikely dance-club hit that year with a disco-fied version of the Italian pop standard "Volare," which was especially popular in Europe. Martino toured the nightclub circuit extensively during the '70s, and managed one more easy listening hit in 1978's "The Next Hundred Years." Faced with diminishing returns, he and Capitol finally parted ways in 1982. Martino continued to perform in clubs, lounges, and casinos for some time afterward, and returned to recording in 2000 with the album Style.
Al Martino (born Jasper Cini, October 7, 1927 – October 13, 2009) was an American singer and actor. He had his greatest success as a singer between the early 1950s and mid-1970s, being described as "one of the great Italian American pop crooners", and also became well known as an actor, particularly for his role as singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather.
Jasper "Al" Cini was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The name Jasper was an anglicisation of his father's name, Gasparino. His parents were immigrants from Abruzzo, Italy, who ran a construction business, and while growing up he worked alongside his brothers as a bricklayer. However, he was inspired to become a singer by emulating artists such as Al Jolson and Perry Como, and by the success of a family friend, Alfredo Cocozza, who had changed his name to Mario Lanza. After serving with the United States Navy in World War II, including being a part of the Iwo Jima invasion where he was wounded, Cini began his singing career. Encouraged by Lanza, he adopted the stage name Al Martino - Martino being the name of his mother's father - and began singing in local nightclubs. In 1948 he moved to New York City, recorded some sides for the Jubilee label, and in 1952 won first place on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts television program with a performance of Como's hit "If".
As a result, he won a recording contract with the Philadelphia based independent label BBS, where he recorded the song "Here in My Heart". Lanza had been asked by his label RCA Victor to record the song, but Martino called and pleaded with him not to do so in order to let Martino's version have a clear run. The song spent three weeks at No. 1 on the US pop charts in June 1952, earning Martino a gold disc and, later in the year, also reached the top of the UK charts. It was No. 1 in the first UK Singles Chart, published by the New Musical Express on November 14, 1952, putting him into the Guinness Book of World Records. "Here in My Heart" remained in the top position for nine weeks in the United Kingdom, a record for the longest consecutive run at No. 1 that has only since been beaten by five other songs.
The record's success led to a deal with Capitol Records, and he released three more singles — "Take My Heart," "Rachel," and "When You're Mine" — through 1953, all of which hit the U.S. Top 40. However, his success also attracted the attention of the Mafia, which bought out Martino’s management contract and ordered him to pay $75,000 as a safeguard for their investment. After making a down-payment to appease them, he moved to Britain. His popularity allowed him to continue to perform and record successfully in the UK, headlining at the London Palladium and having six further British chart hits in the period up to 1955, including "Now" and "Wanted". However, his work received no exposure back in the US. In 1958, thanks to the intervention of a family friend, Martino was allowed to return to the US and resume his recording career, but he faced difficulties in re-establishing himself, especially with the arrival of rock and roll. The success of his 1962 album The Exciting Voice of Al Martino secured him a new contract with Capitol, and was followed by a mostly Italian language album, The Italian Voice of Al Martino, which featured his version of the then internationally popular song "Al Di Là." He also made several high-profile television appearances, helping to re-establish his visibility.
In 1963, he had his biggest US chart success with "I Love You Because", a cover of Leon Payne's 1950 country music hit. Arranged by Belford Hendricks, Martino's version went to No. 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, and No. 1 on the Easy Listening chart. The album of the same name went Top 10 in the Billboard 200. Martino had four other US top 10 hits in 1963 and 1964 - "Painted, Tainted Rose" (1963), "I Love You More and More Every Day", "Tears and Roses" and "Silver Bells" (all 1964). He also sang the title song for the 1964 film, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. One of his biggest hits was "Spanish Eyes", achieving several gold and platinum discs for sales. Recorded in 1965, the song reached No. 5 on the UK Singles Chart when re-issued in 1973. The song, with a tune by Bert Kaempfert originally titled "Moon Over Naples", is among the 50 most played songs worldwide.
In the mid-late 1960s, the family lived in this house on the corner of Laurel Place & Belmont Drive in Cherry Hill Estates, just down the street from Frankie Avalon
Martino's run of chart success faded after the mid-1960s, although many of his records continued to reach the US Hot 100. Another later hit was a disco version of "Volare", (also known as "Nel blu, Dipinto di Blu"). In 1976, it reached No. 1 on the Italian and Flemish charts, and was in the Top Ten in Spain, The Netherlands and France, as well as in many other European countries. In 1993, Martino recorded a new studio album with the German producer, Dieter Bohlen (former member of pop duo Modern Talking, producer of international artists like Chris Norman of Smokie, Bonnie Tyler, Dionne Warwick, Engelbert or Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate). The single "Spanish Ballerina" (written in Bohlen's europop sound) reached No. 93 position in the German single charts.
Apart from singing, Martino played the role of Johnny Fontane in the 1972 film The Godfather, as well as singing the film's theme, "Speak Softly Love". He played the same role in The Godfather Part III and The Godfather Trilogy: 1901–1980. He later returned to acting, playing aging crooner Sal Stevens in the short film Cutout, appearing in film festivals around the world in 2006.
Martino died on October 13, 2009 at his childhood home in Springfield, Pennsylvania, six days after his 82nd birthday. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Martino was survived by his widow Judi and four children: Alison, Debbie, Alfred and Alana.
In December 2009, Al Martino was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.